The story of Southern California hoops nearly took a massive plot twist during the prime of its biggest star.
On a recent appearance on Showtime’s “All The Smoke” podcast hosted by Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss pulled back the curtains on the late superstar Kobe Bryant’s reported intentions to join the Clippers in 2007.
Buss told Barnes and Jackson that a potential move from the Lakers to Clippers was “something that was very possible,” for the disgruntled star.
The remarks likely won’t come as a massive surprise to any longtime fan of either team, as Bryant publicly asked for a trade in a 2007 interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, before walking back the demand just hours later. The interview came just weeks after the Lakers had been eliminated in five games by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the NBA Western Conference Playoffs.
According to Buss, the tensions boiled over in-house as Bryant gave “subtle” signs about his preferred trade destination.
“I never had that conversation with Kobe,” she said. “But there was a game where he wore Clippers colors. Not even a jersey but the colors … very subtle.”
“He Loves Challenges”
On face value, the desire for Bryant to change Staples Center locker-rooms could come as a head-scratcher, but at the time the Lakers and Clippers were on relatively even ground. In the three seasons since trading Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers missed the playoffs and lost in the first round twice, both times to the Steve Nash-led Suns.
Bryant had just led the NBA in scoring in 2006-07 at 31.6 points per game and the Lakers struggled to get him help with an adequate supporting cast.
On the other hand, the Clippers had a solid core led by Elton Brand. After advancing to the conference semi-finals in 2005-06 with what was then the best regular season record in franchise history, they took a step back in 2006-07. They were two games short of missing the playoffs, though they dealt with injury issues throughout the year, particularly with an aging, but still effective Sam Cassell missing over 30 games.
While the Clippers looked promising, adding Bryant to that roster likely wouldn’t have turned them into a title contender overnight. But if anyone knows anything about Bryant, that wouldn’t have swayed him.
“I could see [at the time], he loves challenges,” Buss said on All The Smoke. “I do think that was something that was very possible.”
Of course, the challenge simply wasn’t to be. The Lakers made a blockbuster trade to acquire Pau Gasol on draft night in 2007, and the Lakers went on the lost to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals that season. The Clippers wouldn’t return to the playoffs until the lockdown-shortened 2011-12 season.
Wasn’t the First Time
The new details from Buss recalled Bryant’s frustrations with the Lakers in 2007, but that wasn’t the first time he nearly left for the Clippers.
Kobe (on ESPN710) said he was "very close" to signing w/ Clippers in '04. At the time, potential of them playing in Anaheim very intriguing
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) April 6, 2016
Prior to his tragic death in January 2020, Bryant was incredibly open about his flirtations with other franchises during his free agency in 2004, before O’Neal was dealt to the Miami Heat. Though he ultimately chose to stay, Bryant considered the Clippers and the Chicago Bulls as a potential second destination in his NBA career.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s rumors swirled around the Clippers potentially moving down the freeway from Los Angeles, to nearby Anaheim, the home of MLB’s Los Angeles Angels and the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
According to ESPN reports from 2004, Bryant was intrigued by the prospect in playing home games closer to his Newport Beach home.
Ralph Lawler, longtime Clippers play-by-play announcer, told Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times that the deal was “basically done.”
“[The Clippers] made their pitch to Kobe and it was a very strong one because it seemed apparent to everyone at that point that Kobe and Shaq just could no longer co-exist,” Lawler said. “Then it’s time for Kobe to excuse himself and go, and [Clippers owner] Donald Sterling walks him to the door expressing concern. ‘Is this really going to happen?’”
“Kobe turned to him and — this is an exact quote that I’ve had repeated to me by multiple people — he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m a Clipper.’”
So how close did it come to happening? That close. It took convincing from the man in NBA logo himself to talk Bryant out of the move.
Jerry West on Kobe potentially joining the Clippers. pic.twitter.com/3JOhjdaV4n
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 29, 2020
“I said ‘Kobe, you can’t go play with the Clippers. You can’t go play for that owner, period’,” Jerry West said on an episode of “Inside The NBA” following Bryant’s death.
Now the move seems unthinkable. Bryant went on to win two more NBA Championships with the Lakers following his close-calls with the Clippers.